Code Orange : Underneath

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Despite popular conception, Code Orange have always been an experimental hardcore band. Dressed under layers of technical wizardry and thunderous, violent harmonies, is the bone structure of a band that thinks outside the existing parameters of what is permitted in hardcore spaces. After the grisly Forever in 2017, the past three years have seen the band’s meteoric rise through WWE exposure and immense touring. What was brewing during that time aesthetically and sonically is a near complete departure, yet as an experience remains not only faithful to the shock and grind of earlier works, as it elevates and experiments with confidence and audacity.

The disposition of the band’s third album Underneath is aesthetically fractured, its sound mimicking its own space in a way that is both disturbing and arresting. “Deeperthanbefore” is mostly a style guide of recurring samples (e.g. the somewhat reflective and existential “let’s take a good look at you”), while remaining deeply evocative of Trent Reznor’s earliest industrial efforts, with hushed whispers and and muted, flat atonal stretches ending with what could only be described as an actual jumpscare.

A key single, “Swallowing the Rabbit Whole” features nimble and steep, angular guitar work with blistering finger placements that aren’t just showing off for its own sake—it’s a necessary show of sonic force and complexity. The track, much like nearly the entire album, is backed by a production that is dialed in with razor sharp focus, with passages reversed and played forward, sudden pauses. It’s frantic and heavy but pushes its own boundaries of experimentation, letting either factor blossom in its own space. The key breakdown here is particularly spirited, with dying electronics on one channel, and another full of an emergent double kick drum fill in, while lashing bass contorts and slaps, it’s far from novel in its rhythm and concept, but the flourishes are what makes it so unique.

Throughout Underneath there’s a serious attention to rhythm and pace, exemplified by “In Fear,” whose central groove benefits from the slightest hints of clean(er) vocals only to conjoin it with escalating bouts of machine-gun picking fury and cheek sucking tantrum screaming. Its last movement is a rejoinment/redoublement of the track’s themes in a particularly brilliant effort, all of which is carefully managed in intensity by the rhythm of the track.

There are far more moments of clean vocals here than ever, which marks a new era for Code Orange, one likely to prove divisive to a degree. But it often works in their favor. “Who I Am” is a decidedly calm track, whose intro belies the more familiar intensity of the rest of the album. It tries to evoke as much mystery as it can with a curiously reduced soundscape, once more an experimental form to take when the expectation has already been set of bone jarring riffs and skull crushing screams.

There’s a distinct return to form with a  “Cold Metal Place” in which the band incorporates abrupt tempo changes and a second half that strips down its elements to raw components before building them back up. It signals that the band’s new aesthetic is cleanly developing throughout Underneath, embracing both the tenets of hardcore and the genre’s passive familiarity while evoking experimental bursts of energy to perform necromancy on the sad corpse of the genre. It’s powerful stuff, and it sticks to your ribs as a listener.

Which given the push pull, clean/unclean progression of the album isn’t shocking to hear that the next track and next single “Sulfur Sounding” is a mostly clean vocals track that in truth doesn’t facilitate the bands talents entirely. There is potentiality for this in their future, to be interjected in more sparing fashion, to flirt with pop affectations and find a way to fuse both styles. What’s apparent on the cleaner tracks throughout however  hopefully represents the groundwork for stronger explorations in the future.

There’s further ear candy with “Erasure Scan” which plays like a thrash metal ode, foregoing the chunkier and less nimble style of hardcore for something far more nuanced and lashing with crushing, daring clashes between instruments, cascading into pure chaos. Expert tempo changes yield an extended breakdown with neck slides and cutting cymbal accents. The mix, like the track’s composition, is bold as hell, and let’s not forget the inevitable overdose of electronic effects and keyboards crashing into the whole act. A two-minute package of pain and percussive brilliance.

Code Orange, however, do not leave by the wayside any concepts they introduce, artfully revisiting them throughout the entirety of Underneath. The minor electronic and industrial concepts that listeners first grapple with are allowed to shine fully on “Last Ones Left” with its swelling addition of spectral electronics, chaotic tempo and reinterpretation of classic call and response/chain vocals. “Back Inside the Glass,” as a track, tends to usher the listener into understanding at face value the raw experimentation of the band, which unexpectedly fixates on the ending of the track, with its split-hemmed middle fused with another breakdown that leads to echoes and a field of sludge riffs to wade through. It’s sudden, and unexpected.

The closing title track is a fitting conclusion, showcasing nearly everything that Code Orange has brought to bear over their career and especially as emergent aesthetic trends on this album. it has as much clean vocals as it does feral barks, manic and spastic fits of industrial tinged hardcore, furious unadulterated breakdowns—it’s all here. A proper coda for an album that oscillates wildly and confidently.

More a hand around your neck and a headbutt to your nose than an album, Underneath is an auditory horror film, purely visceral and gut-wrenchingly tactile. It compels you to linger on the textures, electronic syncopations with hushed breaths and furious screaming. Inheritors to a new generation of hardcore and carving out its future, Code Orange remains a veritable force of nature.

Label: Roadrunner
Year: 2020

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